By Henry Morgen, May 13
Shabbat shalom. Fifty-five solar years, and a few days ago, I became a bar mitzvah. That year, my torah portion was Acharei Mot-Kiddoshim. Based on the solar adjusted lunar calendar we Jews live by, however, this week’s parshah should technically have been my bar mitzvah portion. Looking back on the d’rashot I’ve documented, it appears that this is my first attempt to tackle it, so I was looking forward to digging in. There are a huge number of things we could talk about in this double portion, but before I do, I wanted to lay a bit of ground work based on my current theology and understanding of what Judaism is about.
I don’t try to define G!d. G!d, by G!d’s very nature is beyond description and unknowable. That said, I hold the point of view that G!d is never ending. G!d exists independent of space and time. G!d was here before the “big bang” and will be here after the universe as we know it fades into emptiness again. As Adon Olam says: Hu Hayah, v’hu hoveh, v’hu yihiyeh b’tifarah (He was, He is, He will be eternally glorious).
To the extent we try to relate to G!d, we refer to G!d as a parent and a monarch. We are expected to emulate G!d in our actions. What kind of parent or monarch would you like to emulate? I suspect the parent we would most like to be is one with well-defined expectations and boundaries, that teaches us how to live ethically, and that is loving, understanding, and forgiving. Similarly, for a monarch I would anticipate we’d want to make laws that are just and equitable, holding all subjects to high ethical standards. Furthermore, we would want to lead by example, by living a life of high ethical integrity ourselves, judging with compassion and generosity where possible, and applying punishment only severe enough to fit the crime.
One more important point: our relationship with G!d is evolving over time. G!d even makes that point by declaring to Moshe: “E’hiyeh asher e’hiyeh” loosely translated as “I will become what I will become.”
Judaism got its start, so our origin story goes, when a fellow named Avram realized that there could only be one G!d in the world. The natural world seemed to behave in accordance with the rules established by that G!d. There was something special about how Avram understood this fact and how he chose to live his life. While he was less than perfect, G!d wanted him and his successors to share this truth with the rest of the world. At its core, this is what chosenness is about in our context today: to share the unbelievable awe we have that we human beings are able to even have a conversation about our very existence, on this tiny sphere, orbiting a star, on one of the arms of a spiral galaxy, in a galaxy cluster, in the vastness of space that has existed for 13.5 billion years or so thus far. And, by realizing this, live our lives in a way that demonstrates our appreciation for this moment in space and time.
And there’s one other aspect of G!d that I also believe is key to understanding our torah. G!d “created” the universe in six days and ceased from creating on the seventh day. Without focusing on the word “day”, the message is that from that point on, G!d does nothing in the universe (from the torah’s perspective) without interacting with his final creation on earth: mankind. We human beings are unlike anything else G!d has created. We are partners in finishing, or at least continuing, the creation of the world. Everything after the first six days is an evolving experiment that G!d is working out based on how humans behave. I find this totally remarkable. Now we’re ready to look at a few lines of text from today’s parsha and see how that works.
Our opening few paragraphs describe the way we should treat the land during the sh’mittah or seventh, and yovel or jubilee years. The land must be allowed to rest, just as we need to rest periodically, to yield the best produce. We are to trust that G!d will ensure that the sixth year will produce sufficiently to get us through the uncultivated seventh year and the 48th year will even get us through the 49th and 50th year! Look at Leviticus 25:18-24
18You shall observe My laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security; 19the land shall yield its fruit and you shall eat your fill, and you shall live upon it in security. 20And should you ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” 21I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years. 22When you sow in the eighth year, you will still be eating old grain of that crop; you will be eating the old until the ninth year, until its crops come in. 23But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. 24Throughout the land that you hold, you must provide for the redemption of the land.
Two really important things can be learned from this paragraph: First, the land is a living organism just like the animals. For it to yield its produce, it must also have time to rest. We moderns have attempted to coax more produce from our land with chemical fertilizers and insecticides to improve the yield. For quite some time, this appeared to be an effective way to produce more from the land. In recent years we’ve learned that this really isn’t resulting in the best produce and the healthiest land. I’m not saying that we should go back to biblical farming techniques. I am saying that targeted irrigation, with crop rotation, and much less dependence on toxic chemicals, appears to result in better quality produce, and a more sustainable way to farm, healthier soil, and far less pollution of our air and water. It’s also healthier for the farmers working the land.
The second point zeros in on the simple line “… the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” We truly don’t “own” the land we live on. Everything belongs to G!d in reality. Our very existence is a miracle as I pointed out earlier. We need to find a way to live in harmony with the natural world G!d has created for our benefit. We are seeing the results of human hubris, as our climate is rapidly changing. Perhaps in our personal lifetimes the change will be tolerable; however, without a concerted, proactive change in how we treat the land and use its resources, it will be a radically more inhospitable environment for those living a few generations in the future. I’m not planning to dwell on this today, but it is clear from the text that we’re not really following G!d’s plan, and we’re not being good partners with G!d as stewards of this little planet he provided for us to live on. In fact, we are the first of G!d’s creatures that could bring about our own extinction from many of our so called brilliant inventions.
During the second Temple period, the Rabbis decided that these economic models really weren’t workable in the long run, so they made some revisions to enable a more modern social structure to function and thrive. In other words, they acknowledged that our relationship with G!d needed to evolve with the times. Put another way, the experiment of continuing the creation needed to be tweaked.
Let me sum up what I’ve been trying to say in these past few minutes this morning with five points:
- Our very existence in the universe is miraculous.
- As Jews we should share this appreciation of the universe by living our lives as we would want a loving parent to live.
- We need to be better stewards of the planet that we are living
- We need to understand that different social or political structures may need to exist in the day-to-day laws that govern people at a local level and across time while still conforming to the universal laws that would allow all people to live in harmony.
- We exist for merely a moment in time in the vast experiment of creation. We have abundant insight from our sacred texts, that can be made current and fresh, to guide us in making wise choices in our daily lives. Let us reflect on how to best use this guidance to influence better outcomes in the creation experiment that is underway. That is what we have been chosen to do, and that is what we should choose to do in return.
Hazak, hazak, v’nithazek, and shabbat shalom.